Absalom Jones Day with the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas
When you think about the word friend, who comes to mind? One of my closest and longest-standing friends is somebody I didn't quite warm up to the first several times we met. Somehow she just rubbed me the wrong way. We ended up working on a project together, beginning more than 25 years ago, and I discovered a complex and beautiful person behind my initial dislike. I imagine that there was something in her that reminded me of a part of myself I wasn't too fond of, though at this late date I have no memory of what it was. I also remember a time when I inadvertently made a comment that could have been fairly insulting to her, but she just went right on loving me. Her confidence in me, and the way she has stood by me, and the joys and trials we have gone through together over these 25 years have bonded us into life-long companions, even though we see each other now only rarely about once a year.
Jesus calls us friends, not servants, and he does so because of what he learned in his own friendship with God. That friendship with God begins with the experience of his baptism, of a voice from God calling him beloved. Have we learned that from our friendship with Jesus? That God calls each one of us beloved as well? When we know that in the depths of our beings, it become far easier to follow Jesus, even down the road to Calvary. That word friend is related to the word freedom – they have the same root in old English. To be a friend means one has the freedom to act, which is why the greatest love we can know is the willingness to lay down one's life for another. We are hearing too many stories about that right now in Iraq, as soldiers fall on grenades to save their buddies. A horrific example of freedom amidst a good deal of unfreedom.
But there is a great deal more of such laying down of lives going on around us in more subtle ways. The man whose life we remember today is a wondrous example. Absalom Jones was born into a life not just of servanthood, but slavery, yet his friendship with God led him to larger friendship with an entire community in this city. His witness, his martyrdom of word and position, led a people out of slavery in a place that should have been a house of freedom. The Free African Society he and Richard Allen founded was an organized system of friendship for many who had no other friends. The members laid down their lives for each other, providing help when and where and how it was needed – food, money, burial expense, caring for the children of others. And eventually Absalom's journey of friendship led him into another house where he found a somewhat larger measure of freedom – the house of which this parish is the descendant.
What does being God's beloved friend say to you? I certainly hear an invitation to "befriend the world, especially the friendless." That's what Isaiah is talking about â being anointed means being appointed, to go and befriend the oppressed, the captives, the broken-hearted, the mourners, the starving, and thirsty, and homeless, and sick, and most especially the hopeless. That's our mission as baptized people, as the Catechism puts it, "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ." That's about befriending the world, and laying down our lives for those who have no friend.
What are God's friends? What do they look like, or how can you tell when you see one? If God calls all his children well-loved, then that must mean that all should be treated as God's friends, and potentially ours. As the letter to the Hebrews says, "do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unawares." Well, not just angels, but friends. We are meant to approach the world as filled with the glory of God, and filled with the possibility of friendship with all who are. Absalom Jones was able to do that, in spite of his experience with those who would not treat him as friend.
When he and his fellow Afro-Americans walked out of St. George's in 1787, they left because friendship was desperately absent. It may seem odd to talk about what he and others experienced there with words as seemingly mild as an absence of friendship, but that misses the power and freedom that Jesus offers when he calls us friend. Jesus is saying to each of us, "I have your back, I'll be there for you whatever turns up, even death and beyond." Absalom and Richard and their friends in the Free African Society did not have that kind of friends at St. George's. They left and practiced their friendship internally, in the Free African Society, and externally, toward others in the community. But the hunger for friendship extended to the possibility of a larger fellowship of friends. Some made the decision to seek greater friendship with Mother Bethel, and others with the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. Was the friendship that Absalom and the others who founded St. Thomas perfect? Not by a long shot, but the seeds were there, and they have continued to grow and flourish and bear fruit.
The hope that Absalom and his companions placed in this diocese was truly remarkable. They had been rejected before – what could possibly have led them to try a formal church relationship again? I think the roots have to be seen in whatever the other Episcopalians were showing the community of Philadelphia in that day, in this city of friendship and freedom, and in what Absalom knew about friendship in Jesus. That hope is what leads Christians to seek friendship with their enemies. It is what keeps us searching for a redeeming quality in people who act abysmally. It is what keeps us dreaming, and singing, and laughing, and shouting with joy, for we know that eventually God will prevail, and Godâs friendship will once more be made evident.
The friends of God are those whose own hearts and minds and spirits have been transformed, and begin to transform the world around them. If I know myself beloved, then surely there are others to discover as beloved as well, however difficult it may be to see that in them. Absalom Jones lived as friend to the descendants of slaves. He also lived as friend toward those who were not yet ready to receive him as friend. He showed himself free and willing to lay down his life in service for others.
I found some new friends last weekend. I went to visit the Episcopal Church in Cuba, a land like this with a long history of slavery and a society that is still not fully integrated. It is also the nation that our own government finds most difficult to call friend, and our official attitude says quite clearly that Cuba is not free. We found a vibrant and healthy church, not rich in material resources, but rich in faith and creativity. The loudest lament we heard was for an end to the embargo, the formal, political and military barrier to freedom and greater friendship. It is a cry which this Episcopal Church has supported for a long time, and was reiterated by our Executive Council in November.
The Episcopal Church in Cuba does not belong to any province of the Anglican Communion because our ties with them were effectively severed in the 1960s for political reasons. However, we do still send a tiny amount of financial support, and oversight comes from a Metropolitan Council which includes the Presiding Bishop of this Church, as well as the archbishops of Canada and the West Indies. The bishop currently serving Cuba is also the bishop of Uruguay, and spends half the year in each place. One of the tasks of the Metropolitan Council this year was to identify and appoint two suffragan bishops. The Abp of the West Indies was not able to be present, so the job fell to me and the Abp of Canada, Andrew Hutchison. We interviewed about one-third of the active clergy – particularly those who seemed to have some special passion for mission. They were fascinating conversations. Some were willing to be considered and others were not, but it was clear that two stood out for their pastoral gifts and for their keen sense of mission. When the names were announced to the diocesan synod, the people and clergy erupted in a standing ovation. Andrew and I did not fully recognize what we were doing, but the Spirit clearly did. One is the only active Afro-Cuban priest in Cuba, and the other is one of the first women ordained priest there, and both are well-loved and respected by their colleagues and the laity of the diocese. The Spirit chose two who know how to befriend those within and beyond the church. Like Absalom Jones, both have shared their people's joys and their suffering, and both have been worker priests most of their ordained lives.
There are some striking parallels between St. Thomas and the church in Cuba, and I wonder how St. Thomas might befriend others who need a friend, whether in Cuba or in this neighborhood. You both know that God is the special friend of the oppressed, and you have something to say to each other about the first black bishop of the Episcopal Church, which I gather is what Absalom was affectionately and prophetically called.
What a friend we have in Jesus, our beloved brother who sets us free from all that binds us. Absalom Jones knew the freedom of that friendship and spread it wide and deep. Do we know ourselves as friends of God? Who are we going to set free for life? Who else are we going to call friend?